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How to photograph Robins

John Gravett shows you how to take better photos of Robins.

| Animals / Wildlife
Words and images by John Gravett of Lakeland Photographic Holidays.

With over four million nesting pairs of Robins in the UK, it's hardly the most difficult bird to find, and garden birds like the Robin make great photos, especially in cold weather when there might be some snow on the ground.

How to photograph Robins: Robin on a branch

  • SLR
  • Telephoto lens - up to 300mm on a crop SLR, 400mm on full frame, although shorter  lenses can still be used, a fairly long lens, like a 300mm on a crop sensor, or a 400mm on a full-frame sensor, will give you better working distance.
  • Tripod - visit Vanguard's website and take a look at their award-winning tripods.

Feed them
Simply setting up a camera and expecting a robin to come and pose in front of you is never going to happen. To attract birds to any spot, setting up a feeding station, or baiting a perch will soon result in regular visits. I have feeders with sunflower seeds, fat balls, bird seed and peanuts. Another firm favourite with Robins is mealworms. For those of you who don't fancy live mealworms in a tub, try dried mealworms. At this time of year, many plants have berries on them, which provide a good source of food for the birds as well. Leaving a few apples on the ground also helps.

Provide a perch
Photographs of birds on feeders never look particularly exciting or interesting, so site them in an area with a few natural perches around, or provide a perch for birds to land on before they go to the feeders. With a robin, a non-natural perch can look really effective. In addition to the shrubs and other plants surrounding my feeder station, I put a garden bench nearby and stuck a garden fork in the ground to give an alternative view. The recent snows gave a great Christmassy topping and background to my new perches. Don't forget, the easiest way of finding out where birds naturally perch is simply to look for poo deposits!

How to photograph Robins: Robin on a bench

Taking the photo
How to photograph Robins: Hide used to photograph robins fromMy usual method of photographing these birds is a small chair based hide, but with last weeks daytime temperatures hovering around -10º, sitting in a hide for more than an hour was bitterly cold, but gave a few good shots. The advantage of working from a hide is the ability to position yourself at the best location for angle, background and lighting. Being physically there, you have full control over camera angle, focal length and focus.

Incidentally, for most semi-static bird shots, I normally choose manual focus, as it gives me the ability to set the focus point precisely, even focusing on the eye if appropriate. Remember that winter light isn't always that strong, so don't expect to shoot everything at ISO 100 – and don't forget that whilst image stabilised lenses can reduce camera movement, they do nothing to stop subject movement. I usually start at ISO 400, but in lower light, I often find myself using  ISO 1000. You need a high enough shutter speed to ensure a sharp subject – and small garden birds tend to twitch their heads around a lot. I try to work at 1/200th or faster if I can. Despite fast telephoto lenses I still feel that filling a good proportion of the frame with a small bird (I usually try to let the bird fill about a third of the frame) an aperture of about f/8 is needed to achieve sufficient depth of field simply to keep beak, eye and breast in focus. If you're working on a long telephoto, you might even find the close focus point a bit too far away to give sufficient subject size – try either a short extension tube or a converter on a shorter lens.

How to photograph Robins: Robin in sunlight

Too cold?
Needing more warmth, I set the camera on a tripod, fitted an IR release and set it focused on the handle of the garden fork. I retired to the warmth of the house and waited. Although this method is a warmer one, it did mean that I couldn't re-focus or re-compose the shot. Despite the limitations, and of course the obvious frustration when the robin perches on an adjacent perch, an hours photography resulted in a few good pics, although I was more successful with coal tits and great tits on that perch than the robins!

How to photograph Robins: Camera fitted an IR release How to photograph Robins: Camera set up facing out through a window


Finally, I brought the camera indoors and tried shooting through the lounge window, although I thought that shooting through a double-glazed window would degrade the image excessively, but I found that provided I kept the lens as close to the glass as possible, and kept the room as dark as possible to eradicate reflections, I could still achieve good quality results whilst maintaining full camera control and keeping warm.

Of course, you can simply go for a walk in the park and you can get lucky, but whichever method you choose to photograph robins, have a go and enjoy one of our most popular birds.

How to photograph Robins: Photographing robins

Words and images by John Gravett of Lakeland Photographic Holidays.

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